Frabjous Times


Review of Bait and Switch

Barbara Ehrenreich thought to take a few extra precautions to avoid blowing her cover this time, given the success of her low-wage exposé Nickel and Dimed. which was also written in the Nelly Bly tradition. This time she took taking one socioeconomic step up by pretending to be one of the laid-off white-collar workers seeking to re-enter the labor force (mostly in the Atlanta area), and found much the same widespread disillusionment that made her previous book a compelling read. I have known people in our family who have recent gone nearly a year without finding a job.
I have experienced some of the same thing myself, though for a shorter length of time, when I lost my last job myself, and can vouch for the accuracy of the portrayal of this depressing state. The advice to turn around the situation oneself relentlessly through networking and self-promotion is something that would be hard to take on when one is in good psychological health, let alone when a person is prone to doubts and despair. I did not know until I experienced it myself that the most common kind of rejection is no response at all, leaving a person in a state of existential limbo. In the case of Ms. Ehrenreich I would have liked to know whether any of the firms had called her confederates for references, or whether all of her enquiries had been sent to the circular file. In my situation, the joblessness ended when I began my own franchise, an option which Ehrenreich mentions with some skepticism owing to the startup and continuing costs of ownership. Yes, it can be a matter of just buying oneself a job if one is not careful to pick a franchise which offers something more.
One or two of the actual jobseekers Ehrenreich meets are memorable characters, but she really lavishes her talent for vivid description upon the parasites who are often enamored of fringy motivational- and psychological-speak, and who charge steep fees to assure the unlucky jobseekers that they are doing everything possible in their search. She does make the effort to empathize with what they are doing, even to the extent of offering her marketing services to one of them, but it is clear that the interests of these experts and those of the people they sell their products to are not truly aligned.
The story of this employment search with its unresolved ending raises plenty of questions. When resumés bear little relation to reality and are routinely disregarded during the initial screening process, when job candidates are advised to claim qualifications they have not demonstrated in any meaningful way and employers put out ads for jobs which have already been filled, how can any good matches be made in this kind of system? At the very end, she offers some thoughts about how employment and job creation can be made more fair and efficient, although she leaves it to others as to what specific policies can be put into place. I am expecting a spate of stories coming soon with the 2005 Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act in place, which made debts run up during a spell of extended joblessness harder to wipe out.
Originally published: 2005/10/31 10:28:33
Previously published: Mon Oct 31 10:28:58 2005